Movies: Ruby Sparks & the Abusive Relationship*.

I first went into Ruby Sparks thinking it was going to be just another quirky, indie (500) Days of Summer-esque vehicle to cement writer and star Zoe Kazan as the newest Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the same first name to watch.

For the first third of the movie, I wasn’t wrong. It deals with main character Calvin’s decade-long writers block and feelings of “inadequacy” at not being able to live up to his “genius” and “boy wonder” monikers upon the release of his first (and only) novel when he was in his late teens. Naturally, the role of titular character and token MPDG, Ruby, is to come into Calvin’s life in a whirlwind of “messy”-ness, complication and coloured tights and help him out of his creative rut. Ruby Sparks is the exception to the MPDG rule, though, as where (500) Days’ Summer and Sam of Garden State are real women (though “girls” would be a more accurate description) whom the male protagonists envision as their ideal mates, Ruby is literally Calvin’s dream lover: he wrote her on his pretentious typewriter.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Kazan responds to the idea of Ruby Sparks as a critique of the MPDG and how she didn’t initially have that goal when she wrote the screenplay. She also talks about the twist in the third act in which Calvin’s need to have Ruby conform to his dream girl stereotype turns into an abusive obsession with controlling her:

“I think if you’re going to make a movie in which a man can control a woman, if you don’t push it to the extreme, it’s going to be sexist.”

It’s funny she said that, as I had trouble reconciling the fact that a seemingly switched-on woman wrote Ruby Sparks with the first half of it which, as I mentioned above, had one of the only female characters succumb to the idea of what a certain kind of woman should be. (Then again, men don’t have a monopoly on sexism.) “You haven’t written a person; you’ve written a girl,” Calvin’s brother, Harry, tells him upon reading his first draft.

Ruby is a girl who at first seems like a fun-loving, spirited artist with no threatening aspirations of capitalising on her illustrative talents (she admits she’s “super good”) by parlaying them into a career. When Ruby does express a desire to get out of the house more, meet some people and maybe get a job, Calvin begs her to stay with him because “I don’t need anyone else”, and neither should she.

It emerges that Calvin’s last serious lover was a novelist, too, whom he bumps into at a book party at which Ruby frolics in her underwear in the pool with Calvin’s agent and subsequently gets slut-shamed by her boyfriend for it. Calvin’s ex tells him that “it’s like you had this image of me and anything I did to contradict it you just ignored… The only person you wanted to be in a relationship with was you.”

Ruby in her original form, before Calvin starts making “tweaks” the moment she develops some autonomy, is essentially a female version of her creator. Not only has Kazan taken the notion of the MPDG and the trope’s traditional role in shaping and changing her male counterparts’ life and turned it on its head, but she has indeed taken Ruby and Calvin’s relationship to the extreme in the ultimate spin on intimate partner abuse.

When Ruby’s had enough and suggests she stay at her apartment after the book party, Calvin reveals he has utter control over her because she’s not real. While on the surface the suspension of disbelief required by the audience makes this a true statement in the context of the film, the more insidious subtext is that Calvin has such a skewed view of what women should be that it seems he’s saying that not only does Ruby not exist in real life, but nor do real women in his. In fact, they’re more like domestic animals to be controlled, as with Calvin’s written manipulation of Ruby in this scene where he types her on all fours barking like a dog: the ultimate act of degradation.

Speaking of dogs, Calvin’s inferiority complex which so many abusive partners have is evident in his treatment of his dog, Scotty, named for fellow tortured soul and wife-beater, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He prefers the idea of a dog as opposed to actually being a pet owner, because he’d like fellow park-goers to “stop to pet him and I would meet them but Scotty gets scared when people try to pet him”. He gets defensive when Scotty goes to the toilet like a female canine as, by extension, it threatens Calvin’s masculinity. Of course Calvin appropriates Ruby’s shine to Scotty despite or perhaps because of his oddities into a metaphor for her feelings towards her future abuser.

If it wasn’t for the happily-ever-after cop-out of an ending, what initially seemed like the indie movie du jour has turned into a commentary on Manic Pixie Dream Girls and the danger of emotionally abusive relationships.

Related: Ruby Sparks & the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Elsewhere: [HuffPo] Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks Writer & Star: “Quirky” Means Nothing.

*Blanket spoiler alert.

Image via Groucho Reviews.

Movies: Ruby Sparks & the Manic Pixie Dream Girl*.

Below is the original post I had in mind when first going to see indie movie Ruby Sparks, written by and staring who I perceived to be the token Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the moment, Zoe Kazan.

Two screenings later and Ruby Sparks is anything but the cliché Garden State/Elizabethtown/(500) Days of Summer flick I thought it was going to be. In fact, I was so inspired by the movie that there will be several articles about it appearing on this here blog over the next week or two, dealing with its take on abusive relationships, the psychology of its protagonist, Calvin, and the inspiration the film draws from Catcher in the Rye. But first, let’s examine Ruby Sparks as the anti-MPDG.

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I know this girl who wears quirky owl-print dresses and is into obscure strains of literature. She’s not a friend per se, and her tendency to cry at the drop of a hat rubs me the wrong way, but I don’t not like her. More to the point, her existence puzzles me.

I have a few male acquaintances who worship the ground she walks on, and who RSVP to her Facebook invites to attend human rights marches and to go bushwalking when they’ve never spent a day in nature or in non-white, non-straight male shoes in their lives. To them, I think she embodies their idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a feminist film phenomenon I’m sure they’ve never heard of but that has been dominating the indie movie scene (read: anything Zooey Deschanel’s been in) for the past few years.

I don’t know this girl too well, but I don’t think she herself is a MPDG. Her hard-for-other-women-to-get-to-know façade and seemingly archetypal attributes make her the perfect canvas for twenty-something men struggling to find themselves to project their hopes and desires onto (despite the small fact that she has a boyfriend!), much like Calvin does to the titular character in the movie Ruby Sparks. The difference is, though, that Calvin literally created Ruby to be his perfect girlfriend via his pretentious typewriter.

Ruby is one of those annoying, “quirky” (though don’t let writer-star Zoe Kazan hear you say that; she told The Huffington Post that she hates that word. “[Quirky] means nothing,” Kazan said.), sunshiney girls who floats around in an artistic (she’s an illustrator, of course, and “super good” at it), hipster-esque existence. She may be a “motherfucking product of my imagination”, marvels Calvin, but she’s from Dayton, Ohio, because the location “sounds romantic”. She got kicked out of school for sleeping with her “art or Spanish teacher”. Ruby doesn’t own a computer or drive, and she’s “complicated” because she “forgets to open bills”. She’s “such a mess”, but not to worry: Calvin loves her mess. Ever the voice of reason, Calvin’s brother, Harry deposes that “quirky messy women whose problems only make them more endearing are not real.” The MPDG fetishisation of incapability is something I’ll never understand: isn’t the hallmark of being a together, grown-up person and, indeed, partner, to be able to take care of yourself and, at the very least, pay your bills? Maybe I should ask my abovementioned man boy friends to enlighten me on the allure…

What Ruby isn’t in her original form is a whole person. She’s just an extension of Calvin’s indie man-child persona: the ultimate MPDG who breaks with tradition to make the observation that “we’re the same person”. Again, Harry enlightens Calvin with his words of wisdom: “You haven’t written a person; you’ve written a girl.”

As Calvin stops writing Ruby she evolves into an individual, with desires and feelings that don’t always conform to Calvin’s “platonic ideal of Your Girlfriend”. A film that from the Kaiser Chiefs-infused trailer could be presumed to be about the MPDG du jour evolves into somewhat of a critique of the restrictions of the Pygmalion myth, even though that might not be what Kazan set out to do. On the trope:

“I just think the [MPDG] term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.”

In a signature Ruby Sparks meta moment of self-awareness, Calvin expresses to his therapist that girls only want to date the author of his one-hit-wonder novel they read in high school, not him. “They’re not interested in me. They’re interested in some idea of me.” Hmm, sounds familiar doesn’t it, Calvin?

Perhaps my mates who trail along after their dream girl like a puppy dog as she attends pottery class and dates with her boyfriend could take a page out of Kazan’s book as opposed to Calvin’s…

Elsewhere: [HuffPo] Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks Writer & Star: “Quirky” Means Nothing.

[Vulture] Zoe Kazan Does Not Write Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

*Blanket spoiler alert.

Image via Enthunder.